Debates & decisions

As we go to press, President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry are preparing for their third and final debate. It is conventional wisdom that Senator Kerry won the first two debates, decisively putting the president on the defensive in the first, especially on the war in Iraq, and narrowly besting him in the second, where questions were fielded from audience members rather than a single journalist. In between those two debates, Vice President Dick Cheney and Kerry runningmate Senator John Edwards also met. Polls indicated that in the vice-presidential debate the Democratic candidate also made a more favorable impression than the incumbent.

If nothing else, the debates have shown there is little love lost between Kerry and Bush, with the president struggling, and failing, to hide his resentment of, even anger at, his opponent. This was evident in the first debate, where Bush’s body language and scowling made him appear adolescent next to the controlled posture and composed demeanor of his challenger. Kerry seems to have passed the initial test of appearing presidential, at least on stage. By most measures, the Massachusetts senator was the more articulate and cogent of the two. Bush is rarely eloquent when unscripted, and he mindlessly repeated charges about Kerry’s alleged inconsistencies and “liberalism” instead of responding directly to questions. Kerry, too, resorts to canned responses, but he is more adept at varying his answers so that they sound more spontaneous.

Although better prepared for the second debate, Bush continued to show flashes of anger and frustration. He shouted during much of the first half-hour, at one point cutting off a question from the moderator, Charles Gibson. It is doubtful that such behavior reassures voters about the president’s decision making under pressure. It also seems to confirm that the president is rarely exposed to anyone who aggressively challenges his decisions, or is capable of saying no to him. If this is true, it is not surprising that Bush is willfully blind to those aspects of reality that don’t conform to his expectations. Asked by an audience member to admit to three mistakes he’s made as president, Bush was unwilling to acknowledge even one. But if a president cannot admit a mistake, how will he be able to take the necessary steps to correct it?

This obstinacy was quite evident in the president’s refusal to acknowledge the deteriorating situation in Iraq, where violence and chaos have increased month after month. Bush continued to insist that the situation is improving, that “progress is being made.” In the second debate, he falsely argued that a recent report showing how the administration was wrong about Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction actually supported his decision to go to war. The president seemed incapable of dealing with unpleasant facts, and implied that those who criticize his conduct of the war are undermining the morale of U.S. troops and lending support to the enemy. It is more likely that the morale of our troops fighting and dying in dozens of places throughout Iraq is actually compromised by leaders who don’t tell the truth. History suggests that combat troops are rather cynical about cheerleading, and are deeply alienated by those who lead by deception.

Kerry, on the other hand, did a decent job of explaining his alleged “flip-flop” on the Iraq war. In short, Kerry says he voted to authorize the president to go to war because Bush needed to threaten war to force Saddam Hussein to comply with the UN’s disarmament mandates. But Kerry says he disagrees with the president’s decision to rush to war before the inspections were complete and before assembling the sort of international coalition the first President Bush brought together to drive Saddam out of Kuwait.

Kerry was right to remind voters that Bush alone decided to go to war, not the Senate. Kerry’s “plan” to win the peace by reengaging our allies and putting more of the fighting into the hands of the Iraqis seems more like wishful thinking, however, than a realistic strategy. Kerry, like Bush, says that we cannot afford to lose this war, yet the president’s colossal errors in Iraq may have created a situation where “victory” is no longer possible. Whoever wins this election will be faced with the very real possibility that our 135,000 troops may soon be caught in the middle of a civil war that could dismember Iraq and bring even greater instability to the entire region. This, rather than democracy, seems the most likely legacy Bush will leave in the Middle East, whether he wins reelection or not.

If Bush has proved untrustworthy and demagogic about Iraq and the war on terror, Kerry seems just as willfully blind and bullying on the subject of embryonic stem-cell research. Kerry has repeatedly accused Bush of banning such research when all the president has done is prevent the federal funding of stem-cell research which entails the destruction of human embryos. In fact, Bush has approved funds for stem-cell research, provided the stem-cell lines have already been developed. Worse, in some ways, Kerry continues to tout the supposedly miraculous cures that lie just around the corner if embryonic stem-cell research is unleashed. This is hype, not science. Cruelly, it only encourages false hope among those who are suffering, and completely ignores the difficult moral questions raised by the pursuit of scientific research that depends on the destruction of a form of human life. Crossing that boundary is not something to be done as a first resort, if ever.

Kerry’s answer to a question in the second debate about the federal funding of abortion was equally unsatisfactory. First, he tried to make the case that any restriction on abortion would impose an “article of faith” about when life begins on those who do not share that faith. This is a particularly disingenuous argument coming from a self-identified Catholic, especially because the church has gone to great lengths to make the case that abortion is not a narrowly religious concern but a fundamental human-rights issue. Reason and scientific evidence alone, the church argues, demonstrate the human status and dignity of the fetus. Further, Kerry insisted that funding for abortion is a constitutional obligation. Not even the prochoice Supreme Court believes that.

As Margaret O’Brien Steinfels writes in this issue (page 10), Catholics have an obligation to vote, to participate in and support the democratic process. In choosing a president many factors must be analyzed and weighed. Conscientious Catholics will be found on both sides of this race-and among those who think that neither candidate can be trusted on issues of basic morality. Some critics suggest that the disappearance of a predictable “Catholic vote” is a sign of the church’s internal incoherence and its declining influence on its members. However, political decisions about war and peace, abortion and biotechnology, as well as jobs, health care, and taxes are inherently complex-and people of good faith come down on all sides. Catholic principles need not dictate our political decisions, but they should inform them.

October 12, 2004

Published in the 2004-10-22 issue: 
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